Nearby residents say they heard 'only one shot'

April 22, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

Residents of the West Baltimore block where a city police officer fatally shot a fleeing 14-year-old boy in the back said they heard only one gunshot when the youth was killed -- rather than two shots as the officer recalled.

Seven people who live in the 900 block of Ellicott Driveway and were awake at 1 a.m. Saturday said they heard only a single gunshot the night Simmont Donta Thomas was killed.

The accounts of the residents, related this week in interviews with The Sun, directly conflict with the statement of police Officer Edward T. Gorwell II. The police officer said that he heard gunfire before he fired the fatal shot.

"If there were shots fired other than his [the officer's], then they weren't audible to me," said Michael McDuffie, 40. "But I'm sure there was only one shot then," he said.

McDuffie's red brick rowhouse, like those of his neighbors, sits on a steep incline that provides a clear view of the section of Gwynns Falls Park -- about 50 yards away -- where the boy was shot.

Mr. McDuffie said that he was the first person to see Simmont's body and that he directed police to the grassy rise where the body lay. Mr. McDuffie said he flashed his porch lights several times to attract the officers' attention and then pointed in the direction of the body.

"I heard one shot and later I had to tell them where it [the body] was," Mr. McDuffie said.

According to the account of the shooting provided by Henry L. Belsky, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, the officer fired his service weapon after he heard a gunshot while chasing four youths who fled from a stolen car into a dark area at the eastern edge of the park.

The youth was shot once in the lower back and declared dead at the scene. None of the other youths was injured.

Residents in the area of the shooting dispute -- some adamantly -- the officer's statement. Two neighbors, who said they were listening to music at the time of the shooting, said they did not hear any gunfire.

"There is no question that I heard only one shot," said Damon Smith, 21, who also lives across the street from the shooting scene. Mr. Smith said he was just entering his house when he heard a single shot.

"I had just shut my front door when I heard a 'POW,' just one shot," Mr. Smith said. "I just closed the door and turned the lock when I heard it. There were no more shots, I'm sure."

Police investigators have found no evidence to corroborate Officer Gorwell's story. No bullet casing was found at the scene and no weapon was recovered from the youth. A grand jury is likely to begin hearing testimony on the shooting this week.

Officer Gorwell, 24, who has been with the department for two years, has been assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of the grand jury review.

Asked about the neighbors' accounts, Mr. Belsky said: "I can't respond to what they heard. I only know what the officer heard. My officer thought he heard more than one shot. That's our position. I don't know what they heard. Maybe they don't know what they heard. It's very difficult to understand perception."

Mr. Belsky said yesterday that grand jury members will have the opportunity to visit the scene for a partial re-enactment of the incident. He said the trip would be optional for the grand jurors.

Baltimore's Deputy State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy said the grand jury has not received "any word from Mr. Belsky" on visiting the shooting scene, adding that "all of his conversations have been with the media."

Ms. Jessamy said she assumed that the grand jury members have heard about "this unorthodox request," however, and they can ask for a visit to be arranged.

The section of Gwynn Falls Park where the shooting occurred is very dark at night, and streetlights lining Ellicott Driveway offer only minimal light to the park. Gunshots at night are commonplace, residents said.

Frederick D. Chase, 69, said his windows were open on the night of the shooting.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there was just one gunshot," Mr. Chase said. "There was one for sure."

Mr. Chase and his wife, Helen, 67, have lived on Ellicott Driveway for more than 30 years. Mrs. Chase was watching television when she heard a gunshot. "There were not two or three shots, just one. I said 'uh uh, not again,' " Mrs. Chase said. Mr. McDuffie, who has lived in the community for three years, said he was watching television when he heard the shot.

"First I heard a yell, but it wasn't audible what was said," Mr. McDuffie said. "It was a loud yell, followed by a gunshot. I thought maybe someone was robbed in my neighborhood. My first instinct was my neighbors. We like to look out for each other."

Mr. McDuffie said he looked out the window of his second-floor bedroom, then went downstairs and looked out the front door. He saw a police car at the end of the block facing the park with its headlights on. Within seconds, more police cars arrived.

"They [officers] started looking around with flashlights," Mr. McDuffie said. "I had to strain to make out something on the knoll. As I was watching them, I figured out that something was on the knoll. It was dark, so I had to keep looking to determine that it was a person there."

Funeral services were held yesterday for Simmont at the Joseph L. Russ Funeral Home on West North Avenue. Burial followed at Western Star Cemetery in Catonsville.

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